Sunday, October 23, 2005

The global security environment is perhaps more dangerous than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The threat is not so much from weapons of mass destruction but from stateless terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. With their cadres spread in numerous countries, they operate globally. Military action will not eliminate this new threat to humanity. What we need is a global strategy to tackle terrorism.

Post-September 11 there is increased awareness of the problem of terrorism among governments, but public awareness is still at rudimentary levels. The general public should be sensitized about the lurking dangers of surprise terrorist attacks. Public alertness will add an effective dimension to the government’s efforts to prevent terrorist incidents.

Tightening immigration laws cannot by itself address the issue adequately as long as illegal immigration continues. Precautions that governments take, such as installingclosed-circuit television at strategic locations, might enhance the ability to utilize post-event investigations to track down perpetrators of terrorist attacks. But it will not necessarily be helpful as a pre-emptive deterrent.

It is fair to say that open and free societies with respect for law are the terrorists’ natural targets. Besides technological surveillance, highly credible human intelligence is important. More significantly, cooperation among genuine democracies which have a common cause in tackling terrorism is crucial. The war on terrorism has to be fought both at psychological and technological levels. Suicide attacks on key installations to inflict maximum damage and loss of life are the hallmark of terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Their intention is to create panic and exert psychological pressure on governments.

In free societies where citizens enjoy constitutional guarantees, notably the right to privacy and freedom of speech, governments face problems in imposing surveillance. Arguably, the fine balance between freedom and requirements of national security is a delicate matter for determination through executive authority without public protest or even judicial intervention.

Moreover, counterterrorism measures impose high costs and divert resources from development activities. A recent World Bank report titled “Breaking the conflict gap — civil war and Development Policy” notes ruefully that “the world is too small and tightly networked for the damages of conflict to be contained within the country at war.” The report added that “The international community must work together to reduce the number and length of these tragic and deeply destructive conflicts.”

Access to biological and atomic weapons at a future time by terrorist organizations will pose a dangerous trend. Will a congress of Islamic religious leaders and intelligentsia under neutral U.N. auspices help to reaffirm the basic tenets of human dignity and peace enshrined in Islam contrary to its misinterpretation by jihadists for their own ends? The Middle East has been the center of conflict and the location from which jihadism originates.

The evacuation of Gaza by Israel is an act of statesmanship. The prospects for peaceful settlement of the Palestine issue have never looked better. In faction-ridden Iraq, once the constitution-making process is over, early elections must be held. America and its allies should work out a strategy to phase out early their role in governing Iraq and leave that to Iraqis. Democracy cannot be imposed from outside. It has to spring from the aspirations of the people. Outside parties cannot be the primary purveyors of freedom and democracy.

A global strategy to fight terrorism should have as its foundation holistic international cooperation among free nations of the world. International cooperation must cover, besides counterterrorism, such concerns as energy, harnessing water resources, protecting the environment and removal of poverty. Developed countries must realize that globalization has brought about major shifts in economic performance and perceptions among Third World countries.

A recent report of the United Nations titled “The Inequality Predicament” says that increasing poverty within nations and internationally is a major cause of violence and terrorism. Eighty per cent of the world’s gross domestic product belong to one billion people in the developed world while the remaining 20 per cent is shared by 5 billion people in the developing countries. This is a complex issue in international cooperation but one that can no longer be ignored.

Wars result in suffering of innocent people, destruction of infrastructure and large-scale destitution. Islamic countries must be encouraged to launch reform of their education systems and give greater freedom to women. Economic development must be at the core of good governance.

Finally, America and the affluent West should begin to change their lifestyles. Even a five percent reduction in energy consumption will relieve pressure on demand for petroleum products. As the noted economist Paul Samuelson has said, cheap energy is becoming a thing of the past and if the price of gasoline reaches $4.00 per gallon or more, countries will be forced to look at energy conservation and diversification seriously. Should we wait until then?

R. P. Sarathy has worked as a senior executive in India’s chemical and fertilizer industries.

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